All posts by Kate Murray

Kate Murray is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in social affairs and housing. She is the ex-editor of Inside Housing magazine and edits the HQN (Housing Quality Network) governance magazine, The Governor.

Streetwise: building the confidence of vulnerable people

For Streetwise course participant Peter Lomas, the harassment came in the form of kids throwing stones. Another participant on Peter’s course had been so shaken by the shouting and swearing she faced when getting a bus that she was too scared to leave her own home. Others had been conned by people they thought were friends who persuaded them to lend them money they then never saw again.

Bullying of people with learning disabilities can take many forms. According to the charity Mencap, as many as nine out of 10 nationally have been a victim of some form of hate crime or harassment.

That’s why Connect in the North, a Leeds-based organisation led by people with learning disabilities, has been running Streetwise, a tailor-made course to boost the confidence and independence of people with learning disabilities who might be vulnerable to harassment.

The course, which ran last summer and is being provided again this August, it’s run in the summer to allow people who go to college to attend. It brings participants together in a supportive atmosphere to talk through strategies for staying safe when they’re out and about in the city.

In the gaps between the four sessions, held once a week, those on the course are encouraged to go by themselves and then report back on their experiences, with their goals very much tailored to their own experience and capacity so that they are not putting themselves at risk. It’s a simple idea, but an effective one.

For, as Connect in the North consultant and trainer Sarah Wheatley explains, even just a little bit more independence can make a huge difference to people’s lives.
“Some people went from always being met by their support worker at home to meeting them at the bus stop,” she says, “that might not look like big progress but that was incredible for them, that they were starting to get independent. And one woman who had been so knocked back by her awful experience of abuse said on the last day she was going to go to the theatre with a friend and get the bus there herself. She did it.”

A report published by Connect in the North last year showed that, among the successful outcomes experienced by 22 people on the course, one person who often got lost planned and practiced a new journey, another travelled in taxis without support while others used buses, train and a coach for the first time.

Being on the receiving end of verbal abuse – or worse – can be incredibly frightening, But it’s also the fear of the unknown which can prevent people with learning disabilities from getting out on their own. “It’s things like who do you go to if you get horribly lost,” says Sarah. “It’s about building strategies to keep safe rather than thinking the only person I can call on is my support worker or the police. So if you’re on the bus and you miss the stop, then you could just go round again. And in Leeds we’ve got a Safe Places scheme, so there are shops and other buildings people can go in if they’re lost or need help.”

Streetwise also addresses the issue of “mate crime”, an all-too common experience for those with learning disabilities. “It’s the biggest risk – there are probably more cases than somebody being abused,” says Sarah. “People will pretend to be their friend and then borrow money and not pay it back. It’s about teaching the people on the course that that is not all right and they are worth more than that.”

It’s a sad fact that with social care resources ever more stretched, the one-to-one support available for people with learning disabilities for activities deemed non-essential is unlikely to increase any time soon. But who can put a value on being able to take a stroll to the shops or a bus trip to a community get-together?

Peter, who’s one of the directors of Connect in the North, relishes his own independence and is a powerful advocate for the Streetwise model after being on the course himself. “I’d tell anyone it’s a good thing to do,” he says. “It tells you what is safe and not safe.”

Storytelling in senility: revealing dynamic personalities beneath the dementia

One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take down more of my mother’s stories before her slide into dementia accelerated. I would have liked to know more about her brief engagement to a Vietnamese diplomat, or the time she visited Benidorm when it only had two hotels, or what more she could tell me about her older brother who was killed in the war.

That’s why I was fascinated to meet David Clegg, the man behind an inspirational project dedicated to collecting the life stories of people with dementia. His Trebus Project has collected a huge range of stories, some of which have been published in two books and collected on a record and some of which have formed the basis for a Radio 4 series, produced by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson. He’s now working on a short film.

It is estimated that over the next decade, the number of people with dementia will hit one million and today the prime minister is due to launch a “national challenge” on the illness, describing it as a “scandal” that the UK has not done more to address dementia. The cost to UK society is estimated at £23bn.

The prime minister is due to announce a major funding boost for dementia research, reaching £66m by 2015, from £26.6m 2010. He is due to say that “the quiet crisis” is one that “steals lives and tears at the hearts of families”

David Clegg’s Trebus Project is about revealing the fascinating and rich histories of people with dementia; it is about celebrating the lives that appear to have been lost.

Trebus began after Clegg closed down the art gallery he used to run and began working on art projects with care home residents. The very first person he met happened to be a woman with a fascinating tale to tell: she’d once been the girlfriend of the notorious acid bath murderer John Haigh.

“Nobody knew it,” he recalls. “They saw to her needs – it took two people to get her into a hoist for example, but they didn’t know anything about the fact that she was bohemian beyond belief. She would have given William Burroughs a run for his money – she’d hung around with Princess Margaret and made her way back from the south of France wearing only a fur coat and high heels.”

Sheila, one of the Trebus "storytellers" in her extrovert younger days
Sheila socialising (note she's standing in front of cricketer Fred Truman)
Sheila at her care home, in front of a portrait of her younger self

Clegg is full of anecdotes about the people he’s spoken to. One of my favourites comes from an elderly gay man, who remembered celebrating VE day in London. “I asked him: ‘Did you go to the Palace and see them on the balcony?'”, Clegg says. “He replied: ‘No I was in the toilets – I got off with seven soldiers that day and one more in the tube.’”

It’s a perfect illustration of Clegg’s point that far too often we try to sanitise the lives of people with dementia. “A person with dementia is presented as someone fading away, leached out, who’s a shadow,” he says. “But many of the people I’ve worked with are not shadows – they are trying to make sense of their lives in difficult circumstances. They are not any less as people – they can be as funny, vibrant, passionate and randy as they ever were.”

His is a refreshingly unsentimental view of dementia. “We need a new story on dementia. We either present it as a global epidemic or a tragedy,” he says. “But we have got to get the message across that these are people who were not always old, who have lived lives that were full and eventful. Sometimes we might disagree with what they did or the opinions they held but dementia care needs to grow up and embrace some of the complications.”

Clegg, who did a stint working as a carer to see what it was like, plays down talk of being an agitator for the human rights of people with dementia. “I go in and listen and keep coming back,” he simply says. But his project does shine a light on the appalling way older people can sometimes be treated.

A striking shot from the Trebus Project, this time of Marianne, another storyteller

Take the story of John, a man with no living relatives, who when Clegg first saw him was lying on a bed staring at the ceiling, in a completely bare room without even a clock to mark the passage of time. When care home staff were asked by Clegg to bring him a clock they did – but then fixed it on the wall behind his head.

Clegg says the vast majority of care workers do their best, reserving his ire for the lack of resources to stimulate residents and the managers or directors who only want to fill their beds – and who have sometimes banned him from their premises because they were nervous about what he was doing.

His main motivation, he says is to collect words that would otherwise be lost. In the process, he is putting together something incredibly powerful: stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes, as he recognises, almost like a Samuel Beckett play in their bleakness.

The Trebus Project provokes you into looking behind dementia stereotypes

It also, says Alison Wray of Cardiff University, has very real benefits for the person with dementia, putting them at the centre of the process and allowing both them and their carers to reconnect with their identity. In Clegg’s recent work, he has been doing less editing to give the stories a traditional narrative structure. Instead they are presented as fragments. Says Clegg: “It can show what dementia is like from the inside.”

To buy the publications or to donate to support the work of the Trebus Project, go to the website or email

“Enough is enough”: London teens campaign against knife crime

The poster for the London anti-knife crime campaign designed by young people
“We see 12-year-olds holding knives. They are doing it in daylight.” That’s the shocking reality of gang membership on south London’s Rockingham estate, as witnessed by 18-year-old Tanvir Hussain.

On my way to meet Tanvir and his friends, I pick up the Evening Standard. It carries a couple of stories on gang-related crime, including a heart-wrenching plea for an end to the violence from the mother of a 15-year-old boy stabbed to death while out on his bike. It’s a reminder, if any were needed, of the terrible impact of knife crime in our capital city.

Last year, more than 2,000 young people were injured by a knife in London and south of the river the problem is particularly bad, with Lambeth and Southwark last year recording the highest number of knife crimes in the capital. Earlier this month the Met launched a new drive to target gang crime.

For youngsters on the Rockingham, a spate of nine knife assaults three years ago was the final straw. They decided to come together to warn others about the grim consequences of gang culture and have since produced two films and, most recently, a hard-hitting poster campaign on knife crime.

“We’ve been affected by knife crime – we are telling a true story, it comes from the heart and it’s not like something you see on TV,” says 18-year-old Shabir Ali. “We just really felt enough was enough and we wanted to get the message out.” What’s so impressive about the youngsters’ work, through their Faces in Focus Boys’ Group, is that they have led the project every step of the way, inspired by their own experiences – and in some cases their own brushes with the law.

They are aiming their message at the youngsters, often only just at secondary school, who get involved with gangs to try and look cool. They’ve run sessions in schools to discuss gang violence and significantly have also opened a dialogue with the police about how policing methods such as stop and search can fuel community tensions.

But although the project is very much young person-led, it’s brought together a range of partners across local government, housing, voluntary organisations and the private sector. They include the Southwark-based charity Faces in Focus, Peabody Housing Trust, which has supported the work as part of its cross-London Staying Safe anti-crime project and Poached Creative, the social enterprise which brought its design skills to the table. The launch of the drive was hosted by campaigning charity Art Against Knives last month.

Khalis Miah, who helped the youngsters get their ideas off the ground after approaching them through the Connexions service three years ago, says their experience is a positive one on many levels. “Some were in court themselves,” he says. “But they have turned their lives around – they have been doing something positive for the community instead of getting into trouble.” The pay-off projects like these can have in terms of building confidence, leadership and employment skills is important too.

But with young people’s services hit hard by the cuts, support is crucial from social landlords like Peabody, which is currently supporting nine different anti-crime campaigns under the Staying Safe banner.

“Our approach is working with young people, not patronising them but working with them on a professional level,” says Lajaune Lincoln, Peabody’s Staying Safe and special projects manager. “Not only are they putting out an important message on crime, but it is also productive for them, improving their skills and helping with employers.” The members of the Faces in Focus Boys’ Group are continuing to work hard to get their message across – including to London Mayor Boris Johnson, who, they say, has not yet responded to their offer to discuss ways of tackling knife crime.

“We just want to get the word out,” says Shabir. “Knife crime is still going up and we want people to know it does have consequences.”

“I remember when she could make herself a cup of tea”

When I asked my kids to tell me how they felt about visiting their grandma, who has dementia, in her care home, they were honest. “It can be a bit spooky because there are a lot of people there who can’t remember things,” said my eight-year-old. “It’s sad sometimes when we see her, especially when she says she thinks you’re her sister. I don’t really like hearing that. I remember when she was in her own house and she could make herself a cup of tea.”

Hard as it was to hear those words, I can’t say I find my daughter’s reaction surprising. I often find a visit to my mum “spooky” too. Although her care home is very good, it’s not somewhere I’d ever wanted her to be. It’s tough seeing her now, so different from the active person she once was, and the behaviour of people with dementia can be disconcerting and at times downright distressing. I initially found the resident who repeatedly cries out: “I feel terrible” very upsetting – and I’m supposed to be the adult.

The children and I have talked about how my mother used to be, why she gets confused now and why it’s so important that we spend the time that we do with her. My five-year-old summed it up well: “If we didn’t go, she’d be upset and she’s your mum.” But although we have often talked about dementia, and how it makes them feel, I’ve sometimes felt I was struggling to explain what was going on.

That’s why I was so impressed to find The Milk’s In The Oven, a booklet published by the Mental Health Foundation, to help children understand a bit more about dementia. Simply written, with practical exercises to encourage children to think about what it might be like to lose their memory, it’s an effective tool both for the classroom and for families affected by dementia.

Toby Williamson, head of development and later life at the Mental Health Foundation, explains that the booklet, originally published more than a decade ago but updated this autumn, is designed to help address some of the stigma surrounding dementia. “What we are trying to do is help young people understand what dementia is and how it affects the person,” he says. “It addresses the fears children might experience and the feelings they might have of being embarrassed or angry. What it is saying is actually you might well have those feelings, it’s understandable and you can talk about it. We want to reduce the fear of going to visit people with dementia. Social relationships are incredibly important for people with dementia – even in the final stages, a bit of contact, just holding hands, can mean so much.”

As Williamson points out, most families in the UK will, at some stage, have a relative or friend with dementia. It’s important, he stresses, that people know more about the disease, both so that they can support the person affected and so that they can encourage relatives to get an early diagnosis, often so valuable in terms of treatment and preparing for what’s ahead. And even for those children who don’t know anyone with dementia, there’s huge value in learning more about it.

Schools are increasingly teaming up with health professionals to build the links which can foster greater understanding. One impressive project is in Doncaster, where pupils from three schools now visit day centres across the town, taking part in activities like baking, sewing, singing and playing dominoes with people with dementia.

Mary Beardsley, the team manager for the local NHS trust’s Doncaster Community Memory Therapy Service says, the youngsters involved, who are aged between nine and 11, usually don’t have any personal experience of dementia. But thanks to the project they have built strong relationships with the service users, gaining a real respect for them as individuals. For the older people too, it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“Our patients gain so much confidence – it puts them in a position of power being able to teach the children something,” says Beardsley. “When you get dementia, you lose your confidence and you don’t think you are good enough. Seeing the interaction between children and patients is fantastic. The children grow to love them and the patients can’t wait for them to come.”

That recipe for a better understanding of dementia through building new relationships is one I can see developing in my own children. As they talk with some of the residents at my mum’s home, I hope they are seeing that older people with dementia need our support and respect. It’s a lesson that, as the numbers with dementia rise, more of the younger generation will need to learn.

High society (and celbritocracy) backs big society

It was a sight that would have warmed the cockles of David Cameron’s heart. As soul singer Heather Small and ex-England footballer Sol Campbell mingled with guests at London’s Saatchi Gallery last week, they were showing just the kind of commitment to local philanthropy that the Prime Minister is hoping to encourage.

Small and Campbell were among 400 guests at an event organised by the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation to bring wealthy donors together with the charities they support. Since it was launched three years ago, the foundation has raised £500,000 for local charities in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a borough with some of the widest contrasts between rich and poor in the UK. Life expectancy is nearly 11 years lower in the most deprived parts of the borough than the richest, for example (the borough motto is “Quam Bonum in Unum Habitare”, translating roughly as “how good it is to dwell in unity”).

The widely differing circumstances of the borough’s residents were very much on display at the fundraising night, thanks to an exhibition of inspiring photos by members of the Chelsea Estates Youth Project, set up to help marginalised young people. The We are Photo Girls exhibition showcased the work of young people who learned to run their own fashion shoots through the project.

Image from the Chelsea Estates Youth Project, showcased at the Royal Borough philanthropic event

The foundation’s role, explains director Jeremy Raphaely, is to match wealthy donors with charities which are really making a difference on their doorstep. “I have lived in this borough for 40 years and it struck me as odd that charities were getting funding from the local authority, the PCT, the lottery or grant-giving trusts but had no connection with local residents,” he says. “And local residents had very little idea that they were there, let alone any connection with them. But once you introduce them, you get a very positive response.We help donors to focus on areas that interest them, whether it’s youth, education or older people, environment or the arts. We can make a very direct connection between the charities and local donors and their involvement can really make a difference to people’s lives.”

Another image from the Chelsea Estates Youth Project

The foundation’s approach is one that chimes with the government’s push to encourage the UK’s highest earners to give more. The potential is certainly there. The independent Philanthropy Review Board, set up by Cameron last year, says those earning more than £200,000 a year give on average £2 to charity for every £1,000 they earn – compared with £90 for every £1,000 among similar high earners in the US. A culture shift encouraging people to give more – and making it easier for them to do so – could bring in an extra £2 billion for charities by 2015, the review suggested. And it’s the local approach such as that in Kensington and Chelsea that may well have the most success.

As a report by Coutts bank this week points out, almost four in five philanthropists support local charities. Marcelle Speller, one of the stars of TV’s Secret Millionaires, sums up the appeal from the donor’s perspective, writing in the report: “Local philanthropy gives me a sense of community, of belonging, and it recharges me. You can see that you are giving effectively, and have the most joyous, enriching experiences.”

So will a reinvigorated philanthropic community be able take the strain as public funding is cut? Certainly Jeremy Raphaely believes that it’s the tough economic environment that’s helping to encourage some donors to reach for their chequebook, rather than necessarily a real sense of heeding David Cameron’s Big Soceity rallying call. “I don’t know how much people are moved by a slogan like the Big Society – people are even sceptical,” he says. “But they realise charities in general are having a rough time. Funding is being cut back but the causes are as big and as critical as they ever were.”

The Big Society may now be a discredited brand, notable by its absence from the debate at this week’s Conservative conference. But for people like Raphaely, who says “we like to think we had the idea before David Cameron did”, the driving impulse behind it remains. “We do all have a community responsibility. It’s not just the homeless or the disabled – it’s our homeless and our disabled. We are trying to nurture that personal feeling of involvement and commitment.”

Care: money talks but standards should matter more

Freelance journalist and editor Kate Murray
It was when the care home manager started to talk about staff training that the alarm bells sounded for me. Not because I didn’t want the people who would be caring for my mother to be well trained – far from it. It was his reasons for ensuring all his staff had a certificate to their name that I found so worrying. “It’s a competitive business,” he told my brother and me. “Our people have to have those qualifications. That’s what other places have and we can’t afford to fall behind.”

I found his unashamed concern for his bottom line shocking. But I could also see why he was so keen to bring the business in. At some £550 a week for a place in an establishment like his – although he was prepared to haggle to get us to sign on the dotted line – there are serious amounts of cash at play.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t go for the care home in question, plumping instead for an even more expensive option where we felt happier with the atmosphere and the care on offer. But my experience of choosing a care home, which came just before Andrew Dilnot released his recommendations on paying for care, showed me that money talks – even when it should be the standard of care that we should really be concerned about.

When his report was published, Dilnot rightly pointed out that the issue of funding adult social care had been ignored for too long. He proposed that the costs an individual has to pay for his or her care should be capped at £35,000. Many have agreed, arguing that it’s unfair that people who’ve saved all their lives, or worked hard to pay for a home, should be forced to lose most of what they had hoped to pass on to their families.

But for me, it’s not inheritance rights that matter. It’s simply that as things stand, where so many people self-fund their care, we’ve created a market that has spiralled out of control. While the state has stood by, determining that only the worst-off will have their costs made for, care for the elderly has become essentially a private matter.

It’s a world in which staff costs are pushed down so hard that frankly it’s no surprise quality can be so poor. One in which the push for growth can become so all-consuming that, as with Southern Cross, it leads to failure. And one where the prices are so sky high that care home managers seem to believe that relatives will want to haggle over prices rather than talk about how they maintain their elderly residents’ dignity and quality of life.

Establishing a system such as Dilnot recommends, in which people knew how much they would have to pay for their care in later life, would not just allow families to plan for their old age. It would also allow us to concentrate on the things that really matter: good quality care, with respect for the individual.

Care for those who need it should not be about having to worry about the invoice at the end of the month.

Life stories: freeing the minds of dementia sufferers

It was only a picture of a gurgling baby. But to one elderly woman with dementia, it meant the world. “She had dementia, was in a care home and was past the stage where she could really have a conversation,” says Helen Bate. “But she just fell in love with that photo. She would try and wipe the baby’s dribble off, or feed it chocolate. It’s just an image – but it had the power to really engage her and she’s been able to talk to it.”

Bate is founder and managing director of Pictures to Share, an innovative social enterprise creating picture books and other resources for people with dementia. She’s a passionate advocate of people with dementia, who she argues shouldn’t be shut off from the world of books and art just because of their condition. “People make too many assumptions about people with dementia,” she says. “There’s often a lack of imagination in their care. If someone liked looking at good painting, they are not going to lose that when they are in a care home. They may not be able to read any more but they can still enjoy looking at the pictures in our books.”

Bate was inspired to start the business after her own mother, a dementia sufferer, enjoyed looking at a scrapbook Bate’s daughter had put together. “There was nothing else out there,” she says. her first three books were published in 2006 and, thanks in part to charitable sponsorship, she has now produced a total of 11, all designed to combat the isolation and depression which can so often be associated with dementia. The organisation has diversified into producing artwork and is now working on dvds.

“If you go into some care homes, it’s almost as if they assume that because people are old and have dementia, all they want to look at on the walls is pictures of the royal family, wartime or old street scenes. It’s pigeonholing everyone into a very narrow category.” The Pictures to Share books cover everything from sport to shopping and from the world of work to travel.

There’s diversity too in the choice of images: colour and black and white photos both old and new are mixed with reproductions of paintings. The key criterion is that all of the images should be powerful and easy to understand to prompt memories, a chat or simply a smile. “Because of their dementia, certain things won’t work if they are too complex,” says Bate. “And we have to be careful about showing pictures people might get worried about. For example, with a picture of children paddling in the sea where you can’t see any adults around, people could get quite distressed because they think the children are in danger.”

I tried out three of the books with my mother, who has multiple dementia. I was unsure how she would react, but I was delighted to find that the pictures inside captured her imagination. She used to be a great traveller, so it was perhaps inevitable that the biggest hit was the travel book. Its shots of the Taj Mahal and train, plane and ship journeys, really got my mum chatting.

The feedback from other users suggests my mum’s response is not unusual. “It opens the channels of communication that are a bit stuck,” she says. “Relatives find them really useful to get a conversation going, which can be tricky for people with dementia.”

For relatives and carers perhaps the most powerful thing about the books is that they remind us all that behind every person with dementia is an individual with their own interests, likes and dislikes and their own life story. They are not all the same, so let’s free our imagination – and theirs – as we care for them.

All in a good cause? Charity cold callers target the vulnerable

Freelance journalist & editor Kate Murray
My mum has multiple dementia. Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about that. The Alzheimer’s Society reports that there are now 750,000 people with some form of dementia in the UK.

For my mum, it’s a gradual decline into the night. She has her bad days – when she’s convinced she’s about to leave school and needs to find a job – and her better days, where she can just about remember her grandchildren’s names. But she certainly no longer has days where anyone who talks to her, even for a minute or two, might think she’s capable of making a serious decision about the money she spends.

That’s why I was so shocked, when going through her mail recently, to find a letter from one of the UK’s best-known charities, Save the Children, thanking her for talking to one of its fundraisers about leaving a legacy. ‘As requested,’ it read, ‘I have also enclosed a codicil form.’

When I spoke to the charity and told them how disappointed I was that they were targeting a vulnerable elderly person, I discovered that my mother was on a list it had bought a couple of years ago. She’d been contacted, the charity admitted, ‘several times’ over the last few months by fundraisers working on their behalf about making a donation or setting up a direct debit. Save the Children, to its credit, reacted swiftly. It apologised and immediately took my mother off its list, conceding that its telemarketers ‘should have identified she was not capable of making these decisions’.

This was not the first time my mum has been on the receiving end of charity cold calls and has, according to the fundraisers involved, expressed interest in making a regular donation. I have power of attorney over her affairs, so I, on her behalf, continue to donate to those charities she had herself identified before her condition deteriorated and she’s never ended up spending money she can’t afford on new donations.

When I started to have a dig, I soon soon found my mum’s experience was not unique. Take a look at the Alzheimers Society chat forum, for example, and you’ll see pages of discussion about dementia sufferers being cold-called, with, in one case, a fundraiser for a reputable charity apparently going round door to door in a sheltered housing scheme and even filling in the direct debit form when the potential donor was unable to do so.

Charities use cold calling, whether it’s on the phone or at the door, because it’s effective. According to the Fundraising Standards Board, the independent self-regulatory body for UK fundraising, its members made more than 4.7 million fundraising phone calls in 2009, and more than 22 million door to door calls (including collections) – both significantly up on the previous year. But the number of complaints is up too. And with charities facing a squeeze on donations in these tough economic times, it’s not unreasonable to fear that the pressure on fundraisers to get results will increase.

The Charity Commission, in its guidelines on fundraising, says ‘charities should not use any methods of fundraising that may damage public trust and confidence in charities’ including ‘targeting and pressuring vulnerable donors who may not be able to afford or understand the terms of the donation or ongoing donations they are committed to’. And in its code of practice on legacies the Fundraising Standards Board says charities ‘ought to pay particular attention when communicating with vulnerable people’.

Charities may do the right thing when they’re challenged. But is the message getting through to the fundraising frontline? Professional fundraising companies which work on charities’ behalf say all the right things about ‘high quality’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘no pressure’ telephone fundraising. And the Direct Marketing Association’s code of practice specifically highlights the need to ‘take particular care with vulnerable customers’. But marketers are highly focused on results – donors signed up and cash raised – and as I’ve seen that means the reality can fall way short of the theory. It seems to me that the confusing array of organisations and codes – yet another self-regulatory body, the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, oversees face-to-face fundraising – may be part of the problem. Shouldn’t the Charity Commission, which doesn’t directly regulate fundraising, have a more hands-on role?

Of course charities need to reach out to new donors and of course they need to use cost-effective means of doing so. But sensitivity, a strong ethical approach and good training are all essential. So too is a tough line on those marketing teams who don’t stick to the high standards charities subscribe to. Otherwise I’m not convinced a fundraiser, working for a telemarketing or door-to-door team, will really give the thought they should to the donor.

Charities are under pressure for cash. But they rely on goodwill and can’t afford to squander it with shoddy sales techniques.

Housing’s X factor is tenancy support

Jane Forster is a realist. ‘Homeless people with chaotic lifestyles aren’t the most attractive tenants to private landlords,’ she says.

It’s a realism that sometimes seems to be lacking among the policy-makers planning a bigger role for the private rented sector in providing homes for those most in need. The government plans to allow councils to discharge their duty under homelessness legislation with the offer of a home in the private sector in its consultation on the reform of social housing – whether or not the applicants agree.

The move, ministers say, will prevent applicants insisting on being offered social housing and will mean would-be tenants spend far less time in temporary accommodation waiting for the offer of a home. But are we really ready for a big expansion in the use of the private sector to house homeless people?

Can tenants, who are often vulnerable, simply be placed in the private sector and left to go on with it?

The experience of people like Jane Forster suggests that we will need to see a concerted effort to make the homeless tenant/private sector match-up work.

Forster is income generation officer at Mansfield District Council. Mansfield has been running an impressive scheme which offers dedicated support to both tenants and private sector landlords and which has just been a finalist in the Guardian’s public services awards.

The Multi Agency Rented Solution scheme – or MARS – is, despite its name, a down-to-earth solution to the problem of tenancy breakdown. Applicants from the council’s waiting list are offered help in getting money from a credit union for advance rent payments and then given ongoing support to help them stay in their new home. Landlords too have access to liaison officers who help them

The results are impressive. Since it was launched, it has helped some 120 people into a new private sector home, brought 48 empty properties back into use and cut repeat homelessness by 63 per cent. The scheme has been such a success, it is now being rolled out as a social enterprise.

But it’s not an easy fix: making an initiative like this work demands commitment. As Forster puts it: ‘The X factor is tenancy support. That’s what makes it work, when people are vulnerable and don’t have all the skills to live their life, they need ongoing support.’ Mansfield is not the only housing provider doing valuable work in this area.

Look Ahead Housing and Care, for example, has been a strong advocate of the need to make good use of the private sector in housing the ex-residents of homelessness hostels in the capital. Its approach has involved preparing residents for a move into the private rented sector and offering ongoing support as they settle in.

Landlords benefit too, getting the reassurance of proper assessments of their new tenants plus ongoing help, like mediation should the landlord/tenant relationship start to break down.

When it launched its plans for councils to make greater use of the private sector to house those on their waiting lists, the government said only 7 per cent of homeless applicants currently accepted a home in the private sector, compared with 70 per cent of cases which ended with an offer of social housing. We could see a big shift in these proportions once the new rules come in.

The element of compulsion in the government’s proposals doesn’t appeal. But it’s true that with a dire shortage of social housing, the private sector can and should be seen as offering a viable option for many people who would otherwise struggle to get a home. But the approach needs to be backed by proper, ongoing support. Otherwise we risk pushing some of the most vulnerable in our society into homes they will struggle to sustain.

New York, LA, Gravesend; Kent gets its own US-style big society phone app

Freelance journalist Kate Murray
Gravesend doesn’t have too many claims to fame, aside perhaps from being the place where Pocohontas is buried and the former home of Bond girl Gemma Arterton. It never makes the national headlines – unless it’s for recording record high temperatures in a heatwave. And before any Gravesendians out there start to protest, I think I’m allowed to say that as I was brought up in the town.

So imagine my delight when I saw my old home had scored a UK first by launching an application to report anti-social behaviour on a smartphone. The local authority, Gravesham borough council, announced it was joining New York, Boston, LA and San Francisco in making the ‘City Sourced’ application available to residents.

The app, the council said, would allow townspeople to send in instant reports of graffiti, flytipping or housing repairs, and would allow the authority to streamline its response. Its American supporters are even more effusive: the app, they say, represents the future for residents interacting with government. ‘It’s like having a city official in your pocket,’ said one satisfied LA resident.

Gravesham is the first in the country to use City Sourced but it’s not the only UK authority to engage with new technology in this sort of way. Brighton led the way last year with an app showing local bus times, followed by another one which lists council services and local entertainment. Trafford has an app which allows residents to find their nearest library or leisure centre, or to see what’s on at the weekend as well as to report litter or a missed bin collection. Preston even has one offering residents – and visitors – a ‘blue plaque’ trail of notable local sights.

These initiatives are not always popular in these tough economic times. Critics have accused authorities of wasting money developing applications for perhaps a few hundred iPhone or Blackberry users in their patch. I think the critics are missing the point.

Visiting Gravesend to see my mother on the day after Gravesham’s “Download Day”, I couldn’t resist having a go. I’d already downloaded the Gravesham 24 app and it didn’t take too long for me to find some graffiti that could do with being cleaned up. One quick snap on the camera phone, choose your anti-social behaviour category and press send. The GPS on your iPhone or Blackberry automatically shows the location of the problem and your report whizzes through to a terminal at the council offices to be prioritised and dealt with. You can also use the app to check how action on your complaint is progressing. Filing my report felt strangely satisfying. I might not have have had a council official in my pocket, but I could see why Gravesham had called the app empowering.

We hear a lot about how to promote real engagement between citizens and government. We’re going to hear a lot more about it as the coalition attempts to roll out its big society ambitions. But if the big society is to be about more than just getting volunteers to provide services on the cheap, then it has to have real, effective community engagement at its core.

Too often people feel that there is nothing they can do about the problems in their community. Offering them the chance to interact with government, in however small a way, has to be a good thing. There’s little point asking citizens to do more for you, if you don’t in turn give them fresh routes to get you to do your bit.